I don’t think anyone put it better than Tolstoy in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Every family has its dark and dirty secrets that haunt it through generations so everyone can relate, at some level, to such stories. Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light is about to join those ranks with his tale about the Riddell family.
With a legacy built on destroying the environment as timber barons, it was only a matter of time before the family fell into a pattern of one generation destroying the promise of the next. Trevor Riddell and his father journey to the crumbling homestead, the North Estate, to take care of the disintegrating building and legacy once and for all. What begins as a straightforward attempt to get his ailing grandfather to turn over power of attorney so the land can be sold for development quickly becomes complicated when the house begins to give up its secrets. Trevor starts to question whether the plan his aunt summoned them to fulfill is really what’s best.
There is a lot happening in this novel as several generations of secrets bubble to the surface, many revealed to the narrator through the restless spirit of his great-granduncle, Ben. The multitude of factors and voices competing to be heard can get to be a little too much at times, but eventually the din ebbs and there’s room for the reader to breathe again. I think that part of what creates the cacophony is the number of generations addressed. It is a straightforward family tree with very few members that need to be kept straight, making it an easy task (though unexpected branches make an appearance from time to time, it remains manageable). It’s in the crimes committed and the interactions of the generations with one another that things become a little convoluted.
Part of what likely made the four (or is it actually five?) generations necessary is the historic setting. In order for certain circumstances to make sense and carry the correct weight, the initiating father/son relationship, Elijah and Ben, must be put at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. But that puts two further generations between that history and Trevor, with two more generations of awful things affecting the other tangible character he interacts with. Collapsing the narrative by one generation, making Grandpa Samuel the brother of Ben instead of his nephew would have altered things a bit, but would have gone a long way to streamlining it as well. There isn’t anything definitively wrong with the novel or plot as it is; I just found it unnecessarily busy and crowded.
I also found a particular element of the relationship between Trevor and his aunt Serena (and between Serena and Trevor’s father, Jones) to be unnecessary. It felt like it was only really in there to create sensationalism (it could be an attempt to evoke Faulkner but if so, it felt too forced for me).
There was plenty to enjoy in A Sudden Light but it continues to hammer away at its messages long after the nail has sunk into the board. While the blueprint seems to be for something complex and intricate, when stepping back to take a look at the finished product the form created turns out to be structurally sound but familiar and painted using a predictable color palette so that what was intended to make it stand out, eventually ensures it will fade and blend into others.